Planning Landscape Photographs

How I planned this photo of Kings Creek Falls, California

Long exposure of the lower portion of Kings Creek Falls. The water has a feathery, misty quality.

Have you ever heard the saying “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”? As a professional landscape photographer planning is an important component of my job. It’s true that sometimes I’m blessed with capturing an unexpected scene, but most of the time I’m at a place because of preparation.

Planning process

Being new to California, I spend a lot of time Googling cool places to photograph. When searching through a list of National Parks in California, I found Lassen Volcanic National Park. Lassen offers a couple unique photographic opportunities. First, it is one of the only places in the world you can visit all four of the major types of volcanoes. Second, it is designated as a dark sky park, which means in summer it is a place you can see the Milky Way. Both of these qualities made me excited to start planning a trip.

Because it’s not as well known as Yosemite, Sequoia, or Death Valley, I figured a summer trip wouldn’t be too crowded. A visit to the National Parks website allowed me to see the monthly average number of visitors. Based on the results I chose to plan a July trip to photograph some of the volcanoes as well as the Milky Way.

Researching the locations – No particular order

  • Google
    • Maps – flat, 3D, and map images
    • Earth – future view function
      • This allowed me to determine sunrise was the best time to photograph the waterfall tucked away in a canyon.
    • Image search
  • Web
  • Instagram
    • Search location
    • Search local pros
  • People – don’t overlook getting beta from locals/people whose photos you liked
    • Reach out to the photographers from 500px, IG, web, etc.
    • National Park Rangers are also willing to help. You can call in advance or stop at the visitor center to chat in person.
  • Weather
  • Photopills – capabilities
    • Time and location as a function of time
      • Sunrise
      • Sunset
      • Moonrise
      • Moonset
      • Milky Way position/orientation
    • Moon phase
    • Galactic center visibility
    • Augmented reality feature – use onsite – very powerful feature
    • Landmark setting
      • Calculate distance and elevation difference between two points (helpful for determining if the sun/moon would be above/below a landmark you were trying to photograph)

Visualizing the photo in advance

Once I knew that I was going to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park I started to research interesting locations. I made a list of potential sites based on a combination of Google image search, Google Maps, 500px, National Parks website, and Instagram. With the initial list in hand I set out to refine my search and plan a few landscape photoshoots.

When I started planning the Kings Creek Falls shot that you see here, I had to put in a little more time. First, I found an image of the waterfall on 500px.

Screen capture from 500px search of Kings Creek Falls in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Then, using Google Maps, I located it in the park. Next, I used the 3D function of maps to determine the topography of the scene. What I found was that the falls are tucked pretty far into a canyon, which meant that more planning was necessary to figure out the best time to be onsite.

I next turned to Google Earth Pro because of a fantastic feature called “Time” that lets you move forward/backward in time and see how the sun, moon, stars move across the sky. The great thing about this feature is that, for the sun, the map animates shadows across the landscape. This makes planning for something like this waterfall that is tucked into a canyon easier. You can see when the light is predicted to fall on the water. Then, it is a matter of noting the time to arrive.

Google Earth Pro screen capture for Kings Creek Falls, Lassen Volcanic National Park. Example of using time function in Google Earth Pro.

With an approximate arrival time locked in I went back to Google Image Search to see what other landscape photographers had captured. I made note of a few images, then checked out some other web resources for other inspiration.

In the field

I completed all the work outlined above one or two months in advance of this trip. Once again, being in the right place at the right time requires preparation. However, you always need to be a bit flexible just in case things don’t go to plan.

To capture this photo and any other photo of King’s Creek Falls I needed the following conditions:

  • Light – I didn’t want super dark shadows and little detail in the rocks.
    • Best quality of light was near sunrise because of the orientation of the sun relative to the waterfall.
  • Weather – relatively clear skies, no precipitation
    • Rain would reduce the sharpness, as well as, make it more difficult to keep the lens clean.

On the day I planned to photograph the waterfall my first check was looking out the door of my tent. Since I could see the stars the sky was relatively clear. A quick check of the weather forecast on my phone showed clear skies throughout the morning. I rolled out of my sleeping bag, then headed to the trail.

A great thing about getting to the trail before dawn is I had the place to myself. I arrived at the top of the falls just as the first rays of the sun started streaking across the sky. This gave me plenty of time to walk around the scene to pick a first shooting location. This is an important thing to remember. No matter how many pictures you review of a place it is important to look around the area for other perspectives.

Screen captures of Photopills planning tool. Image on left is planview image of sun/moon location. Image on right is example of augmented reality planning tool.

One of the best tools I’ve been using for a while now is Photopills. I briefly outlined some of the featured packed into this powerful app, but when you are onsite, the best feature is Augmented Reality. Within the app you can see the path of the sun and moon overlaid on the scene as you walk around. This is invaluable as a planning tool because it allows you to visualize the scene instantly and set up compositions on the fly. Chances are, if you have seen an incredible image of the moon perfectly located over an ancient building or a super creative image of the Milky Way Photopills was used.

Using this tool I walked around to see just when to expect the sun to be high enough to capture what I had planned. This is helpful because it could be the difference between having the time to scout more or need to set up gear immediately. Thankfully, I had enough time to keep working the scene.

Planned photo of Kings Creek Falls in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

The rest of the morning I spent moving from one spot to the next capturing image after image. As seen below. The top photograph was captured after I captured several compositions that featured the full waterfall. The large boulder with mini-waterfalls cascading down just caught my eye. So, I decided to move closer. Moving around the area, it became clear that I was going to be getting wet to take the picture I wanted.

With temperatures in the low 50s F I took off my socks and shoes, rolled up my pants then took the first steps into the freezing creek. After a few minutes my legs were numb from the knees down. I was so focused on capturing photographs that this didn’t really register until I exited the water. Socks and shoes never felt so good. haha

What to pack

Camera equipment

I’ve talked about the software and value in talking with people who’ve visited a place. However, I’ve not mentioned how this influences the stuff you pack. This is going to be determined by a couple factors.

  • What kind of photo do you want to capture?
    • Kings Creek Waterfall
      • Desire slow shutter speed to create milky blur of the water
        • Need
          • Tripod
          • Neutral Density Filter (Lee Big Stopper – in this case)
          • Triggering method
            • Camera timer
            • Shutter release cable (optional)
      • Environmental concerns
        • Waterfalls generate significant spray, which covers camera/lens
        • Need
          • Rain cover for camera (DIY or otherwise)
          • Multiple lens cloths – you’ll want to switch regularly as they become wet/dirty
      • Lens choice – 16-70mm f4.0
        • Need
          • Wide enough to capture the entire waterfall
          • No significant zoom required
      • Miscellaneous
        • Spare batteries/memory cards
      • Carrying the gear
        • What backpack or camera bag will you use
        • Do you need/have water protection

Other equipment

This is just the photography portion of the list. When working in the field, being prepared to spend time outside should not be overlooked. Your needs are different between hiking to a shooting location and sitting in one place for hours at a time.

The big items on this list are:

  • Clothing – minimize cotton
    • Cold weather
      • Layers of breathable fabrics with potentially a hardy shell.
      • Protection for the extremities; hats, gloves, socks, good boots, etc.
    • Warm weather
      • Layers of breathable fabrics.
    • Sun protection
      • Sun glasses, covering, etc.
    • Rain gear – important to check those weather reports
      • Jacket/pants for you
      • Umbrella/covering for camera, backpack, etc.
  • Provisions – pack a little extra
    • Food
    • Water + ability to make it (sterilizing kit, stove, pan, etc.)
  • Light
    • Flashlight, headlamp, etc.
    • Spare batteries
  • First aid kit
    • Consider looking up packing lists online for your specific activity and duration. The prepackaged ones are often not quite ready to handle a larger trip.
    • Emergency blanket

When things don’t go according to plan

Now, I know this is not an exhaustive list when it comes to planning a landscape photograph, but it is a good start. However, as the saying goes, “man makes plans and God laughs”. No matter how good your plan, always be prepared to throw it out the window.

Things will likely happen that are out of your control. maybe when you check the weather before getting in the car, an unexpected storm will have moved in that will mean no sunrise light. Do you still go?

Sometimes you are on site and you drop your sunglasses some 50 feet down over a ledge and you need to scramble into a bowl to find them. Do you take your gear with you or not?


These are things that you will have to decide on the fly. They are also things that make your photographs unique. No one else will have the same exact story as your. My advice is to not let this dissuade you from planning your next landscape photograph. Just keep in mind that it is always good to be flexible.


I hope you enjoyed this article. Enjoy using the tools to plan your next photography adventure.

See you on the trail.

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